Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

Goerne/Eschenbach (Harmonia Mundi HMC901995) | Prégardien/Gees (Medici Arts DVD 2057308)

31 May 2009 4 stars4.5 stars

GoerneThe differences often felt between baritone and tenor performances of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin are demonstrated in these two outstanding new accounts from Christoph Prégardien (on DVD) and Matthias Goerne. And the tendency for a tenor to sound a bit jollier and, simply through the higher register, more youthful than a baritone is emphasised here further by the quality of the voices on show: Prégardien's tenor is sweet and beautiful, although never sickly; Goerne's soft-grained baritone is every bit as beautiful – if not more so – yet is an instrument that is undoubtedly more at home in a world of melancholy reflection.

The contrasts are further emphasised by the interpretations. Prégardien is ever alert to possible shifts in mood, his renditions of the quicker songs skipping along with a care-free attitude; the feeling of levity is also occasionally added to by his incorporation of ornaments. With Goerne we have a young protagonist predisposed to depression and illusion; many of the songs are taken very slowly, with the final three lasting nearly twenty minutes (his 'Des Baches Wiegenlied' is over nine minutes long, a whole minute longer than Prégardien and nearly four longer than Fischer-Dieskau on his old EMI recording with Gerald Moore).

Goerne's performance, however, is hypnotic. Many of the songs take on an almost Mahlerian profundity and the willing listener is beguiled, bewitched and drawn in a trance into a watery grave with the cycle's young protagonist. Along the way, there is some singing of the highest quality, all accompanied with great sensitivity by Christoph Eschenbach. Perhaps not as animated as Prégardien is with Michael Gees, Goerne and Eschenbach make less of the contrast between verses in 'Das Wandern' – Prégardien and Gees delight in evoking the heavy stones, in particular – and they don't milk the Müllerin's 'Gute Nacht' in 'Am Feierabend' in the same way. Songs like 'Der Neugierige' are stunning in terms of control and concentration, and deeply moving. Eschenbach impresses again and again, too, with the delicacy of his playing, such as in playing out 'Tränenregen'. They turn in excellent performances of 'Halt', 'Ungeduld', and 'Mein!' but here the music works against the gentle beauty of their natural interpretative style. It is in the final three songs, together taking up more than a quarter of the disc's total playing time, that they are at their very best. For some this meditative intensity might seem un-Schubertian, but such is the artistry of both men, anyone listening will need a particularly steely constitution not to be won over.

PregardienFilmed cleanly and unfussily in the modern space of the Liederhalle Mozartsaal in Stuttgart, Medici Arts have produced an exemplary film of Prégardien's traversal of the cycle, with outstanding sound to match the crisp picture. We have bonuses of three encores from Schwanengesang as well as a 25 minute interview with the tenor, which serves as an excellent introduction to the cycle but also to Prégardien's particular approach to it.

One of Prégardien's points in the interview is that every tenor is expected to sing Die schöne Müllerin but even if one can master the technical aspects early on, only with experience can one begin to portray the complex psychology of the character – somewhat paradoxical since the character himself is defined by his lack of experience. With Prégardien none of this interpretative work is on show but, throughout the cycle, experience tells through the naturalness of his portrayal, helped by the wonderful sweetness of his voice. There are a couple of moments of strain, but apart from that the tenor is vocally in fine form.

Prégardien makes it clear that his choice to ornament Schubert's vocal line is not a provocative or self-serving gesture and the musicological arguments he puts forward for it seem, without further investigation, feasible; in any case, documentary evidence to refute or back up his point of view is likely to be thin on the ground. However, Schubert's melodic gift was rarely more inspired than in this cycle and some might object to his altering and ornamenting it, however tastefully it is done. There are a couple of occasions – such as the words of the 'Meister' in 'Am Feierabend', where the embellishment of the line strikes the listener as out of character – where Prégardien's additions seem to get in the way of Schubert's artless simplicity. On the other hand, the strophic songs benefit from a little embellishment, and sinking lower on the word 'tief' in 'Tränenregen', for example, adds extra wordpainting which seems entirely appropriate.

Prégardien also benefits from the lively and alert accompaniment of Michael Gees. Between them they are more alive to the cycle's playfulness – such as the miller girl's throw-away 'Ade ich geh' nach Haus' at the close of 'Tränenregen'. Eschenbach, on the other hand, misses some of the piano-writing's sparkle.

Both these performances are outstanding in their different ways. Prégardien – with the added advantage of DVD – starts off with a more optimistic skip in his step that perhaps better contrasts with the final tragedy; Goerne's hypnotic account takes us deeper, on the other hand, into the emotional abyss from a less optimistic starting point. Presentation and recording on both releases is of the very highest quality.

By Hugo Shirley


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